Government to commit $50m for wildlife affected by bushfires as green groups call for action

Adam Morton Environment editor
<span>Photograph: David Mariuz/AAP</span>
Photograph: David Mariuz/AAP

The Morrison government will pledge $50m to help rescue and protect wildlife affected by the bushfire crisis, with a promise of more to come, as environment groups warn some species may have already been driven to extinction.

The commitment, to be drawn from the government’s $2bn bushfire recovery fund, will be described as a downpayment to be spent immediately on priorities in burned areas and to start longer-term restoration of lost habitat.

Conservation groups wrote to the federal environment minister, Sussan Ley, and her state counterparts on Sunday expressing concern for at least 13 animal species, and urging the government to use a review of national environment laws launched last year to boost wildlife protection.

Related: 'Silent death': Australia's bushfires push countless species to extinction

The letter by five groups echoes earlier warnings by scientists in saying the fires may have triggered extinction events for some threatened species.

It sets out a recommended emergency wildlife recovery plan, including that scientists and conservationists be sent into the field immediately to identify and help at-risk animal populations as part of a coordinated national response.

Ecologist Chris Dickman, from the University of Sydney, estimates more than 1bn animals have been killed in bushfires that have burned more than 10.7m hectares (26m acres) across the country. According to a Victorian government report leaked to The Age, fires in that state have burned 31% of rainforests, 24% of wet or damp forests and 34% of lowland forests. Among the worst affected species was the eastern ground parrot, which was believed to have lost all its Victorian habitat.

Guardian Australia has been told the focus of the federal government’s pledge would be caring for and rehabilitating injured wildlife, securing species of threatened populations, controlling predators and other pests that are a major threat to vulnerable species after fires, and scientifically mapping the damage.

It will include a commitment to hold roundtables of environment groups, scientists, farmers and representatives from governments, communities, business, philanthropy and industry to develop medium- and longer-term plans for wildlife recovery.

In comments provided on Sunday, the treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, described the $50m as an initial investment in wildlife protection and restoration. He said it was a critical step in creating a viable future for animals that had survived.

Ley said it was too early to know the severity of the fire damage, but it was clear it was an ecological tragedy. “We know our environment has an enormous ability to recover and we need to engage communities, volunteers and experts to support that,” she said.

Does climate change cause bushfires?

The link between rising greenhouse gas emissions and increased bushfire risk is complex but, according to major science agencies, clear. Climate change does not create bushfires, but it can and does make them worse. A number of factors contribute to bushfire risk, including temperature, fuel load, dryness, wind speed and humidity. 

What is the evidence on rising temperatures?

The Bureau of Meteorology and the CSIRO say Australia has warmed by 1C since 1910 and temperatures will increase in the future. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says it is extremely likely increased atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases since the mid-20th century is the main reason it is getting hotter. The Bushfire and Natural Hazards research centre says the variability of normal events sits on top of that. Warmer weather increases the number of days each year on which there is high or extreme bushfire risk.

What other effects do carbon emissions have?

Dry fuel load - the amount of forest and scrub available to burn - has been linked to rising emissions. Under the right conditions, carbon dioxide acts as a kind of fertiliser that increases plant growth. 

So is climate change making everything dryer?

Dryness is more complicated. Complex computer models have not found a consistent climate change signal linked to rising CO2 in the decline in rain that has produced the current eastern Australian drought. But higher temperatures accelerate evaporation. They also extend the growing season for vegetation in many regions, leading to greater transpiration (the process by which water is drawn from the soil and evaporated from plant leaves and flowers). The result is that soils, vegetation and the air may be drier than they would have been with the same amount of rainfall in the past.

What do recent weather patterns show?

The year coming into the 2019-20 summer has been unusually warm and dry for large parts of Australia. Above average temperatures now occur most years and 2019 has been the fifth driest start to the year on record, and the driest since 1970.

The letter from conservation groups says the government’s threatened species recovery hub could be used along with other experts to establish a priority list of species requiring urgent intervention.

It raises specific concerns for species that have had all or key parts of their entire habitat burned. It lists 13 animals, including three critically endangered species: the southern corroboree frog in the alps, the regent honeyeater in the Blue Mountains and the western ground parrot on Cape Arid in Western Australia.

Others listed are the greater glider and long-footed potoroo in East Gippsland, the Kangaroo Island dunnart and glossy black cockatoo on Kangaroo Island, the brush-tailed rock wallaby, Hastings River mouse and eastern bristlebird in northern New South Wales, the quokka in Western Australia’s Stirling Ranges, the Blue Mountains water skink and the koala in areas across NSW.

The letter says it is likely other species will have been catastrophically affected, particularly poorly studied amphibian, reptile and invertebrate species.

“The devastating impact of these bushfires highlights the need for an effective and responsive national environmental law framework to safeguard and recover our imperilled wildlife and heritage places,” the letter says.

Related: How First Australians' ancient knowledge can help us survive the fires of the future | Joe Morrison

“The current EPBC [Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation] Act review provides an opportunity to enact strong protections for critical habitats and climate refugia for species and ecosystems.”

It calls for the review, led by the businessman Graeme Samuel, to include the development and implementation of recovery and threat reduction plans. Two years ago there were formal recovery plans for less than 40% of nationally listed threatened species.

The letter, signed by representatives from Birdlife Australia, the Wilderness Society, WWF, the Humane Society International and the Australian Conservation Foundation, says the short-term fire response should include a rapid evaluation of damage to world heritage sites and Ramsar-listed wetlands. The Unesco world heritage centre expressed concern in November about bushfire damage to the Gondwana rainforests of northern NSW and southern Queensland.

Launching the review of EPBC Act last year, Ley stressed it would “tackle green tape” and reduce project approval delays. Hundreds of scientists have called on the government to use the review to strengthen the law to help address a worsening extinction crisis.